In Carter's inner circle, his top advisers quietly have been assessing whether the president is suffering political fallout from his decision to refrain from campaigning and debating.
Minor political warning signals have been scrutinized the way intercepted enemy documents once were in White Houses past. Hamilton Jordan and Jody Powell ordered data from telephone banks in Maine transmitted to the White House nightly for the past five days.
"We've been tracking the phone banks," Powell confirmed. "Ham and I have looked at the figures and it is our assessment that the issue is not cutting in a major way up there so far."
At stake for the Carter camp is the question of how long the president should continue in the traditional frontrunner's stance he has assumed in the name of foreign policy. For now, there will be no change in strategy, Powell says, stressing that this is being done for reasons of policy, not politics.
But other Carter officials say the question of how long the president can continue to stay away from the campaign trail is still a matter of continuing concern.
"There's some anxiety about here," one official admitted. "And that's an understatement."
In New Hampshire, according to one adviser, the Carter-Mondale phone banks have found that a number of voters are critical of the fact that Carter is not campaigning nor debating.
And Vice President Mondale returned from a trip to New England with a report that Kennedy's attack on what Kennedy calls Carter's "Rose Garden" strategy 'is cutting a bit," according to one official. Told of this, however, top Mondale officials insisted that Mondale feels the issue is not really hurting the president.
These factors alone are not enough to convince the president and his top advisers to abandon the traditional frontrunner's stance.
Carter remains ahead of Kennedy by 2 to 1 in most polls in Maine and New Hampshire, the crucial upcoming caucus and primary tests. And as one Carter official said: "We're still holding to the rule that if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
But there is another statistic that is causing increasing concern among Carter's political strategists.
Carter-Mondale telephone bank canvassers in Maine and New Hampshire have been finding what one top-level Carter campaign official says is "an uncomfortably high number of people who say they are still undecided."
The campaign officials say the percentage of undecided voters consistently has been in the high 30s. "The number is higher and harder than we'd like it to be," said a senior Carter official.
How crucial this figure really is involves both the political necessity of winning and the political gamesmanship of deflating expectations. Shortly before the Iowa caucuses, after all, some Carter officials were saying their organization was in bad shape. One of the president's top advisers, reminded of that, replied: "This is different. You could see it coming in Iowa. I just don't feel the certainty I felt in Iowa."
According to one high-level Carter adviser, the president's chief New England strategist, deputy campaign manager, Chris Brown, recommended several days ago the Carter hold a nationally televised press conference soon because Brown was concerned that Kennedy's attacks on a Carter "Rose Garden" strategy would catch on in New England. The president has scheduled a news conference for next week.
A number of senior Carter advisers privately concede they do not believe that the most recent explanation of why Carter is not campaigning -- offered by his wife, Rosalynn -- will be convincing to large numbers of Americans.
"The appearance of disunity is exactly what the Iranians and the Soviets want," Rosalynn Carter said in Buffalo, N.Y., a week ago. "To see a president arguing or debating on any issue appears, to other people in other countries who don't know our political situation, that we are disunified in our country."
Actually, the Carter campaign has seen to it that New Englanders (and the world) are being treated to a debate, of sorts, through the medium of political television commercials.
Under the guidance of media adviser Gerald Rafshoon, the Carter campaign has begun attacking Kennedy by name in its ads. Carter has five new radio ads playing in New England. Each begins: "Whenever Sen. Kennedy paints his vision of the American future, his record catches up with him."
The commericials go on to attack Kennedy for portraying himself as a "skillful tax reformer," then state that "71 percent of his tax legislation failed." They say Kennedy portrays himself as being for a strong national defense, but that "over the past six years he voted 10 times to cut the defense budget." They point out that he once voted to cut funds for the Trident submarine, that he couldn't get his health insurance bill out of his own subcommittee, and that he was defeated in his bid to win reelection as Senate Democratic whip.
And they attack him for voting against a tax credit for home insulation.
All of this, in effect, has touched off what Mrs. Carter referred to as public "arguing or debating." Yesterday Kennedy, pounding the podium in his appearance, before the Consumer Federation of America here, charged that his position is being twisted by Carter. Kennedy said that he voted against a tax credit for home insulation because he favored direct subsidies to those who insulate their homes.And he said his vote to cut the Trident funding was seven years ago, back when Carter was a candidate and was calling for cutting at least $5 billion from the defense budget.
So the debate-of-sorts goes on, a slow-motion, instant-replay video version of the more traditional charge and countercharge that occurs when both candidates are live and in color.